Figure Skating

Figure skating: 6 things to watch in unique Grand Prix season

The Series is limiting skaters to one national or regional event with strict COVID protocols, though two key events have already been impacted. There’s still plenty to watch out for on the ice in the 2020/2021 edition.

By Nick McCarvel ·

The figure skating season is back.

It might not look like what fans are used to, but the ISU’s Grand Prix Series kicks off on 23 October with Skate America in Las Vegas, then heads to four other stops in China, France, Russia, and Japan.

Normally assigned to two Grand Prix stops, skaters will instead participate in just one, and each event will take on a more national and regional field as officials are limiting the amount of travelling done by the skating community in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the first program has been skated, the Series has already hit a couple of major bumps, however, with Canadian officials announcing the cancellation of Skate Canada (30 and 31 October) and the postponement of the Grand Prix Final - where the top six skaters from each discipline compete, and which had been set for December as an Olympic test event ahead of Beijing 2022.

No plans have been announced to re-schedule the Final as of yet, but the 2021 calendar has already been impacted, too: Four Continents, set for February in Sydney, was called off on Friday (16 October).

As the calendar rounds towards the next Winter Olympic Games, the coming season still promises plenty of high-stakes competition, with some skaters trying out new coaching arrangements, upping their technical games, trialling different choreography, and hoping to qualify for the world championships, set for late March in Stockholm.

Here, we have six things to watch out for during the Grand Prix Series, which Olympic Channel will provide full coverage of in the coming weeks.

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With reigning Olympic champion Alina Zagitova sitting out the Grand Prix and silver medallist Evgenia Medvedeva back with coach Eteri Tutberidze, Russia reigns supreme in the ladies’ division, with a host of youngsters aiming for more senior success.

Russians Alena Kostornaia, Alexandra Trusova and Anna Shcherbakova swept the six Grand Prix events last season, while Kostornaia was victorious at the GP Final and European Championships as Shcherbakova won Russian nationals.

It will feel like Russian nationals at Rostelecom Cup when the three former training mates (Kostornaia and Trusova now skate under Evgeni Plushenko) go head-to-head, joined by Medvedeva, former world champ Elizaveta Tuktamysheva and more.

To kick off the season, Americans Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell will face off at Skate America in an American-heavy field. Three weeks later, two-time Four Continents champ Kihira Rika (pictured above) and her triple Axel will compete at Internationaux de France, near her training base, while Sakamoto Kaori, Hugichi Wakaba, Honda Marin and Mihara Mai feature in a loaded NHK Trophy field.

Two-time world medallist and four-time Japanese champion Miyahara Satoko will not feature because of Skate Canada's cancellation. It's still unclear if a substitute event of some sort - even virtual - might take place in the coming weeks.

It’s not quite clear, either, what the future holds for Zagitova, still only 18, as she’s opted to do a Russian skating TV show in the coming months. But Medvedeva’s move back to Tutberidze from Brian Orser was a clear signal: She was unable to train at the highest level in Russia with her coach via video chat, so she opted instead for a domestic setup, returning to the coach who helped her to two world titles and Olympic silver.

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The reigning and two-time world champion Nathan Chen has been home in California since March, back training with coach Rafael Arutunian as in-person classes were halted at Yale University.

He will compete at Skate America in a field that also includes 2019 world bronze medallist Vincent Zhou.

Two-time Olympic gold medallist Hanyu Yuzuru, meanwhile, has been back home himself in Japan, unable to train in Canada with longtime coach Orser. The Japanese superstar has opted out of the Grand Prix, citing his asthma, as well as a want to “help protect against the spread of the infection,” he explained in a statement posted on the Japan skating federation’s website.

Neither Hanyu nor 2018 Olympic silver medallist Uno Shoma will compete at their home Grand Prix in November, with Uno instead scheduled to skate in France along with his compatriot Kihira, near to his training base with coach Stephane Lambiel.

American Jason Brown was meant to stay near his training base (Toronto), too, for Skate Canada, much like with training mate Cha Jun-hwan as well as Canada’s Nam Nguyen.

Nguyen told Olympic Channel after the cancellation that training remains his focus: "Initially when I found about the (cancellation) news I was going to take the rest of the week off, but I didn’t want to stop the momentum that I had built up already," the 2014 world junior champion said. "For us we’re trying to keep (training) simple. The boundaries are sky-high now because of skaters like Yuzu and Nathan. I’m glad I didn’t take this time off this week. I don’t want to have to start from square one again (after COVID)."

It will be a season of established skaters like Russia’s Mikhail Kolyada and Kevin Aymoz of France looking to cement their top-tier status. Youngsters Matteo Rizzo, Artur Danielian, Kagiyama Yuma, Daniel Grassl, and others will try to make a splash of their own.

China’s Jin Boyang and Yan Han will go head-to-head at Cup of China, as well.

"I don’t want to have to start from square one again." - Canadian skater Nam Nguyen to Olympic Channel

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Dance: Dancing into a new season

Who dances to the top this season when we reach Stockholm in March? Since Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir’s retirement following their second Olympic gold in 2018, the team to beat in ice dance has been four-time world champs and Olympic silver medallists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

But the French duo were beaten in their most recent competition, falling to Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov at Euros in January.

“It was kind of disappointing to end the season with this performance and this result,” Papadakis told Olympic Channel in August. "But, I mean, it's kind of past us now. We realised what had happened.”

Sinistsina and Katsalapov’s Russian counterparts Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin will look to challenge the French, as will their Montreal-based training mates, the American teams of Madison Chock and Evan Bates, as well as Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. Chock/Bates announced last week they would skip Skate America, citing training limitations due to COVID-19.

With Montreal as an international training hub for dance, Skate Canada's cancellation hits hard. Toronto-based Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of Canada were meant to go head-to-head with Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson (GBR) and Olivia Smart and Adrian Diaz (ESP), among others.

An already-loaded international field in dance just got that much more interesting, too: Vancouver 2010 bronze medalist in men’s singles, Takahashi Daisuke, is making the switch to ice dance, partnering with Kana Muramoto. They’ll make their debut at NHK Trophy.

“I’m both excited and curious at once,” said Meryl Davis, 2014 Olympic ice dance champ with Charlie White. “It’s so unique. Daisuke is an icon… a legend. I am blown away by what (I’ve seen) already. He’s one of those people who thrives on a challenge.” she told Olympic Channel ahead of the season.

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Pairs: Top teams lead Olympic race

There are fewer top teams to contend with in pairs versus ice dance, though the competition is no less fierce, and especially so as Beijing 2022 hosts China are the strongest in this discipline.

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong are the two-time and reigning world champions, and will go up against their chief domestic rivals, Peng Cheng and Jin Yang, at Cup of China.

Like in ladies and dance, Rostelecom Cup will be bubbling over with talent in pairs, led by reigning national and European champs Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii.

Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro look to be the standout team at Skate Canada, while the race at Skate America could come down to two teams that train together in southern California: Alexa Knierim and new partner Brandon Frazier vs. Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson.

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A must-see field in Moscow

With participants limited to one event and Grand Prix hosting skaters based only in their country or region, the more localised fields present a different kind of feel to the Series in comparison to the past.

Without question the deepest ladies’ field of the season will come at Rostelecom, with Kostornaia, Trusova and Shcherbakova all taking their Grand Prix success from last year and vying for one podium. Medvedeva will look to factor in there as well, as will Tuktamysheva and Sofia Samodurova, the 2019 European champion.

Kolyada, the 2018 world bronze medallist, will be tested in the men’s competition in Moscow, with Dmitri Aliev, the reigning Russian and European champion, factoring in, as well as Georgia’s Morisi Kviteshvili, youngster Danielian, as well as Alexander Samarin, Roman Savosin and others.

In pairs, Boikova/Kozlovskii will go up against Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, 2019 junior world champs, as well as Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin.

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Keep an eye on the boards

While Medvedeva’s switch back to Tutberidze has been highly publicised, there’s been a plethora of coaching changes through the elongated off-season, including the American Tennell going to Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado.

With COVID restrictions in place and crowds not allowed at Skate America (other events are still TBD), skaters must rely more on themselves and their teams to create a competitive atmosphere in empty arenas.

Coaching personnel will become even more important for skaters to bring their best onto the ice in these unprecedented circumstances.

Skaters relying more on themselves and their teams for competitive atmosphere in empty arenas

Should the Grand Prix Final remain unscheduled, skaters will next compete at their national championships, typically held in late December through mid January.